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Stop comparing rape to burglary

March 15, 2014

*Trigger warning: rape.*

Perhaps you heard someone say something along the lines of: “Well, I’m not saying she deserved it, but if you go out dressed like that, you have to expect that sort of thing to happen.” I could go on and on [and I have, two or three times] about how nobody should have to “expect” to be victimised if they exercise their free choice to do something innocuous like wear short skirts, but I won’t here.

Instead, I’ll add that the problem with the “We must all take precautions” argument for victim blaming.  It works from the cynical perspective of “Well, of course people are like that. People will always be like that and there’s nothing we can do to change it.” Which is balls. People will have said something similar about cannibalism and inbreeding, which we may not have stopped completely but I don’t think you could call me delusional for suggesting we have greatly reduced both.

The comparison commonly, and insultingly, given is between rape and burglary. If you leave your house open and unlocked, they argue, you may not deserve to be robbed, but you should have known better and it’s entirely your own fault that you didn’t.

Firstly, I’d like to note my genuine astonishment that we all actually believe we live in a society where you can’t leave your door unlocked for fear of being robbed. Aside from the moral aspect – that we’re really not as bad as we think we are – there’s a practical element. The idea that you must lock everything up tight and buy an alarm is universal across the country, including the privileged suburban areas where burglaries very rarely happen. Burglaries are opportunistic and take place where people who have little dwell, where security is likely to be low and community spirit has been deadened by an oppressively bleak environment.

In affluent areas, even if you left you front door open and thus significantly reduced security, people would hardly commute to the area just to burgle. They might have to get a train which they aren’t able to afford and would defeat the object of getting something for nothing. They would also be more likely to get caught – areas with low crime are easier to spot crime in. If any person on my street left their door open, I expect most people would ignore it, shut it, or try to get hold of someone who could do something about it. The last time I had something stolen from me in that area, it was a ten year old child who did it, and her mother made her return the item.

Now we get to the point, which is one of frequency. We believe that burglary is more common than it is, which means that our “common sense” tells us that you must protect yourself against it as a matter of course.

Anything for which the frequency is impossible to predict cannot be protected against. No one goes out in full body armour in even the roughest parts of London, not simply because of the expense but because people don’t expect to be shot. I suspect this has something to do with severity, and the psychology of assuming something is rarer because it is more dramatic. Nobody looks over their shoulder for axe murderers because such a thing happens so infrequently, it would be the height of paranoia to plan in preparation for them.

Our problem with rape is that we underestimate its frequency, based on both its severity and our lack of knowledge about the statistics of it. As such, it is hardly a mystery as to why people don’t “protect” against it. Should you ask any scantily clad young woman if she fears her likelihood of being raped is increased because of her dress sense [please don’t], you will most likely get an uncomfortable look and an inconclusive answer. In our current society, it is not clear if this threat is to be taken seriously or treated as the kind of scaremongering to be expected from any society that immediately locks its doors to its neighbours when moving to a new area.

Unfortunately, it is not just adults who buy into victim blaming. Anyone who has heard teenage girls talk will have experienced the displeasure of hearing them refer to each other in terms insulting their intelligence, likeableness and “purity”. It is deemed that only people who fall short of these ideals would be raped. Largely, this is because we have only a peripheral understanding of what rape is.

I say peripheral, because it seems clear that these teenage girls have some basic understanding of what rape is, enough to conclude that it is more likely to happen to some people than others. What they would not be able to tell you is why it is more likely to happen to one group than another. The reason they cannot tell you this is because what they believe is untrue. Anything that follows a pattern has a reason to follow that pattern. If you look for a reason and find none, in the course of looking you may well find that the pattern was imagined. The circumstances of victimhood vary and don’t allow for this in our surface-scratch reasoning. The truth untold is that rape is an term that describes a broad set of things. It is a category which includes anything from brute force to coercion from a trusted person.

Which begs the question; if we don’t even know what rape is, how can we possibly protect against it? It would be like chastising someone for leaving their door unlocked when the burglar got in by excavating under the house and up through the floorboards. Girls and women (or indeed, men and boys) are not offered the steel flooring they need to prevent it happening.

That steel flooring is education. And a good start would be to stop comparing complicated personal, universal crimes to simple, impersonal, class-dependent ones.

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One Comment
  1. Galaxian permalink

    Because there is absolute duty to keep hands off, there is no question of transgressors being absolved simply because a source of temptation was in view. Yet pointing out that behavior can influence the probability that an adverse event will occur is not “blaming the victim.” Even in a nice neighborhood, persistently forgetting to lock your house will hike your odds of getting burglarized. I think the general emphasis on “freedom of choice” in our society is unhealthy. The business of life has never been about freedom, but about the many constraints under which it must be lived.

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